He Said, She Said: Driscoll's "Real Marriage" is Really Not | Sojourners

He Said, She Said: Driscoll's "Real Marriage" is Really Not

Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll
Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll

Editor's Note: For those of you who pay attention to evangelical Christian culture (particularly its "emergent" subculture), it will come as no surprise that Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill church in Seattle, once again has positioned himself as a lightning rod for criticism and controversy. Since founding Mars Hill in 1996, Driscoll, 41, has drawn the ire and reproach of critics from both inside and out of evangelical circles with his penchant for a kind of nouveau-fire-and-brimstone Christianity; a plainspoken, in-your-face (some would say "bullying") preaching style, and polarizing statements about "biblical" sexuality, gender roles for women, and masculinity (he derides what he calls "girly men), and an "emasculated" image of Jesus that he says is favored by many evangelical pastors today who have turned God's Only Begotten Son into “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that . . . would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.”

A 2008 profile in the New York Times Magazine dubbed Driscoll one of the "most admired — and reviled — figures among evangelicals nationwide," and his profile at Resurgence, a theological organization he helped start, brags that the fellow known as the "cussing pastor" for his occasional use of blue language (in the pulpit) is one of the "world's most downloaded and quoted pastors." Love him or loathe him, Driscoll is undeniably one of the most influential young evangelical leaders around.

Now comes his new book, Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship and Life Together, co-authored with his wife, Grace, which is billed as a kind of owners handbook for married folks, with step-by-step instructions about, among other things, what sex acts are kosher (and not) in the marriage bed. The book has been greeted with considerable praise and derision from various quarters in the evangelical world.

We asked God's Politics contributors, husband-and-wife writers David and Sarah Vanderveen — a couple in their early 40s who have been married for more than 18 years and are the parents of two teenage boys — to read Real Marriage together and share their thoughts on the book and the meaning of "real marriage."

HE SAID: David Vanderveen

In Mark and Grace Driscoll’s new book Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together, the most appealing component is that they want to help couples with their marriages. The problem is that they want to give all specific answers to deeply personal marriage questions. That’s not only awkward, it's impossible.

I’ll let Sarah focus on the details of why Mark Driscoll just simply shouldn’t address anything having to do with men’s and women’s relationships — I think “patronizing” is the kindest descriptor available. My focus will be on why Real Marriage is really a failure in management techniques and maybe a cry for help from Mark Driscoll himself.

The Driscoll’s approach to this book feels like a pastor-couple holding a bad marriage seminar in an auditorium complete with fluorescent lighting, a wood-veneer pulpit and bent folding chairs. They talk about their own personal shortcomings in far too much detail and try to make a list of specific rules of engagement for everyone else based on their personal experiences and their experiences counseling others.

Think of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperatives, but instead they somehow become Driscoll’s specific imperatives that must be true for all people at all times.


In the book, Mark talks about how he burned out his adrenal glands and taxed his system trying to run a church. Then he talks about extremely personal and detailed counseling with random couples at weekend retreats. Reminds me of asking a medical doctor for investment portfolio advice—he’ll probably give it to you, but he has no expertise in the field.

Being a megachurch pastor and popular author doesn’t make you effective at coaching or changing people’s behaviors; it just makes you popular.

The Driscolls also continually refer to their advice as entirely biblical. In one comical section, under “SEX” and its seven essentials, we hear learn that:

Third, marriage is for one man and one woman by God’s design. This is the consistent teaching of the Bible from the table of contents to the appendix and the teaching of Jesus Christ Himself…Fifth, sex outside marriage is a sin. Sinful sex includes…polygamy…

Really? The Bible from the beginning to end calls polygamy a sin? Jesus Christ Himself condemns polygamy?”

While we may believe polygamy to be morally unacceptable in developed cultures in 2012, there is no where in the Bible that polygamy, per se, is either called a sin or where Christ condemns it. And the rest of Real Marriage is full of similar, poor biblical scholarship.

Also of note is that according to Driscoll Bible scholarship, “secret masturbation” is sinful. I told Sarah that I’d post a Facebook update the next time I loped the mule, so that it would be out in the open. ( Now there’s something that I’m sure we’d all benefit from knowing about our friends and relatives.)

To borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together:

The bright love of Christian service, agape, lives in the spiritual community; the dark love of pious-impious urges, eros, burns in the self-centered community…Self-centered love constructs its own image of other persons, about what they are and what they should become. It takes the life of the other person into its own hands. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person as seen from the perspective of Jesus Christ. It is the image Jesus Christ has formed and wants to form in all people.

Real Marriage feels like a control freak attempting to assert his dominance onto the fine details of my marriage. It certainly doesn’t feel liberating, it is weirdly erotic, and I don’t understand how it helps a couple develop their own fullness — the abundant life that Christ offers and the freedom that comes with it.  It certainly is not what Bonhoeffer had in mind for Christian communities.

As a simple example of why this style of management and the type of advice suggested in this rabbit’s warren of poor relationship counseling don’t work, I refer back to Christ’s management style and knowledge transfer techniques.

Christ knew that he was only on the Earth for a short time. He could not micro-manage his followers. He had to give them core values, not more laws. For discipleship to be scalable, duplicatable and sustainable, people needed general principals and broad stories to help them wrestle with their lives and their myriad decisions. Jesus’ disciples didn’t wear bracelets that said “What Would Jesus Do?” They lived to wrestle with Jesus’ values and their application to life.

Jesus could have added to the hundreds of lines of codified Jewish law already in place. He didn’t. Instead, Christ knew that he’d have to transfer the DNA of life as children of God in the kingdom of God so that it could be replicated.

When his disciples didn’t get the answers right, he’d tell another story, and another story and another story, until they got closer. Then he gave everyone who believes his body, blood and spirit so that we can be transformed, guided and dance closer to God. Christ wants us to feel the beat of his love rather than try to follow the bad disco step chart that religious law demanded.

A disco step chart doesn’t teach dancing anymore than the Driscoll book teaches real marriage.

Real marriages develop from two people who are committed to making them work. The specifics of how two real people make one real marriage work is largely irrelevant given the freedom we have in Christ. Marriage is supposed to be a symbol of our relationship with God on earth.

We don’t need more multiple choice tests and true-and-false quizzes with black-and-white answers to bring heaven to earth; we need to put the love of the other first — with God at the core — to make our marriages work.

Here’s another example of why you simply can’t make specific imperatives in a marriage book: A back massage. There’s nothing in the Bible that condemns a back massage between spouses (thank God). However, if one spouse is drained by giving massages and the other spouse knows this, it would seem to be wrong to ask for a massage.

We don’t need rules about massages. A person simply has to be aware of what empowers, enhances and enables their spouse to be come the best person they were designed to be and help them pursue that together.

My wife and I have a business where we are required to work with more than a million distributors in six countries. It would be impossible for me to answer all the questions that arise through our work together. My adrenals would burn out and I would collapse.

Instead, we have to find ways to redirect questions into opportunities for people to learn to educate themselves, do their own necessary work and find their own solutions. This process generates a sustainable model to help people develop themselves as they were designed by their creator, and it allows me to surf midweek, midday.

One would hope that the well-regarded Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson would have better editorial oversight and better author management. This book is not only a troublesome read, it dispenses poor general advice, has bad scholarship and is based on a management style that is doomed to failure from the start.

Real Marriage for me wasn’t about marriage relationships at all. It was a cry for help.

Amidst the awkward, embarrassing and problematic style, I think that the book is really an example of the desperate place to which Mark Driscoll’s ministry style has led him.

SHE SAID: Sarah Vanderveen

Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of Mark Driscoll’s work. I’ll own up to my bias: in my limited exposure to his preaching and writings, his macho, micromanaging pastoral style has left me cold.

I struggled with whether or not to review Driscoll’s Real Marriage, (which he co-wrote with his wife, Grace) because I honestly don’t want to contribute to his notoriety or effectively send one more person out to buy his book, even just to see how bad it is.

But I’ll offer a critique with as much kindness as I can muster, because I’m worried about Driscoll — and about the church — for expecting pastors to be experts in subjects that are best left to trained, licensed professionals.

Mark and Grace Driscoll state in the introduction to Real Marriage that they wrote the book because they speak at seminars and “have spent more than 15 years counseling people before they were married about how to live as a Christian in such a sexualized culture, what’s OK — from a biblical perspective — to do in bed once you are married, and how to deal with intimacy issues all throughout married life.”


People are looking to their pastors to tell them what exactly they can do in bed once they’re married, and how to deal with intimacy issues throughout their entire married lives?

This is a real problem, because the Bible isn’t a marriage handbook, and a seminary degree doesn’t train a pastor to be a sex therapist.

Undoubtedly, there are many, many Christians, including those who come to Driscoll’s conferences, who are struggling in their marriages with issues ranging from trauma caused by past abuse, to sexual dysfunction and addiction, to poor communication. I understand that these are real problems for which hurting couples need real help and in many cases, very specific counsel and direction. But I find it absolutely stunning that Driscoll believes that he is not only responsible for directing the nitty-gritty details of couples’ sex lives (“Can we have anal sex, watch porn, role play?”) but also that he is qualified to do so.  

In a video clip I watched in which Driscoll discusses his reasons for writing the book, he says “Who else can people ask about these things?”

Um, how about a licensed family counselor, or a caring physician?

Since when is it a pastor’s job to give folks the thumbs up or down on masturbation, oral sex, or for that matter, the thumb in…(never mind, I’m just not going to go there)?

Would you ask your pastor for her opinion on that tech stock you were thinking about buying, or what he thinks of your sore throat and inflamed lymph nodes—“Pastor Mark, do you think it’s strep, maybe? And can you write me a prescription for an antiobiotic? And by the way, are antibiotics biblical?”

No, you wouldn’t — and it would be wrong of your pastor to tell you specifically how to “biblically” manage your financial portfolio or your health.

The Driscolls barely address the myriad issues that can be root causes of marital strife and sexual dysfunction, including but not limited to: health problems including depression and other mental illness, hormonal imbalance, stress, and different stages of life, whether new baby, empty nest, unemployment, change of employment.

Unfortunately, solving these problems often takes more than Bible study and a pastor’s counsel—though that’s a good place to start.

Real Marriage is a poorly written, poorly researched book by a well-meaning pastor who I believe is struggling with his own sexuality and sense of self-worth. I don’t know how else to explain his weirdly inappropriate fixation on masculinity and specific sexual practices, and his failure to address the complexity of human sexuality and relationships.

It feels to me like he doesn’t really want to understand the whole person, rather he just wants to cut straight to the salacious tidbits. I realize that’s how you sell a lot of books, but still. I get the distinct impression that Driscoll is not a man at peace.

My biggest concern with Real Marriage is the disservice it may do the vulnerable people who will read it. I have a hunch that some might be couples who may need compassionate, professional help, not an injunction to incorporate more striptease and breast massage into their marriage based on Driscoll’s flawed, cringe-inducing interpretation of Song of Solomon. (And I’m not saying those things are bad; it’s his exegesis that I find tedious and, dare I say it, a total turn-off.)

The Driscolls are essentially practicing brain surgery without medical training or board certification. They have overstepped their credentials and are veering toward what I would call pastoral malpractice.

In his book The Mystery of Christ…& Why We Don’t Get It, the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon eloquently summarizes his view of the pastor’s role:

As a pastor, therefore, my real authority — my true authenticity, whether in the pulpit, or in my office, or in the confessional, or at the end of a piano at a cocktail party — lies in my fidelity to the Gospel, not in my assorted competences (real or imagined) in other fields. …It seems to me that when pastoral advice is given by an ordained person, it ought to be given primarily on the basis of what he or she was ordained do — namely, witness to the Good News of God in Christ — and not on the basis of any other competence (or incompetence) the pastor in question may possess.

I think Capon gets it right, and the Driscolls have gotten themselves in over their heads.

A pastor’s calling is to shepherd people — to point them toward Jesus. To pray for and with them so they are able to discern the leading of the Holy Spirit when it comes to very personal, difficult questions to which there are no clear answers in the Bible. And, when it comes to real problems in something as sacred as marriage, to direct them to real, qualified, professional help.

David Vanderveen is a husband by marriage, a father by birth, a surfer by vocation, and an energy drink entrepreneur. He is the editor of Rob Bell's new book, The Love Wins Companion: A Guide for Those Who Want to Go Deeper.

Sarah Koops Vanderveen is a surf mom, writer, blogger and member of Redbud Writers Guild. She is the former editor of The Mars Hill Review, a literary journal focused on the intersection of faith and culture. She lives in Laguna Beach,Calf., with her husband and their two teenage sons. Read more by Sarah at her blog, "Once by the Pacific."


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